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Fellside Recordings FECD200

The greatest thing about James Keelaghan is that he is a sort of trinity: indeed to secular characters like me, one can almost give that word a capital T and stick the word HOLY in front.

By this I mean that for many of us he's always incorporated the COMMAND of a Stan Rogers with the RAW ENERGY of a young Gordon Lightfoot. And then he has added a large dollop of HIMSELF to provide us with a heady brew.

In Keelaghan we have a man who has yet to produce a dud album. But surely his luck is going to run out sometime. Would this be the album too far? Well no, it wouldn't. There was no real danger of that. However, I think I'd be dishonest if I did not say that I enjoyed relatively recent albums of his like 'Home' and the earlier 'A Recent Future' and 'My Skies' just a wee bit more. But then, that is maybe more a comment on ME than the album: let me explain.

You see, this new album is a sort of retrospective. It is about bringing eleven of James's previously recorded songs back to the recording studio, and laying them down again, this time as James sings them today. The changes are usually subtle ones, sometimes too subtle even for James to notice as his singing does not always match word-for-word the lyric in the liner notes!

Now the problem (and I use the word 'problem' rather loosely) with that sort of 'retrospective' CD is that for guys in the middle like me, who are simply admirers of Keelaghan, but are neither devotees nor hostile to him, a retrospective just serves up songs we have mostly heard before, and indeed have in our CD collection. So there is not the 'thrill of the new'. However, I can well see that real fans will enthuse over the smallest nuance, and indeed some would write an enthusiastic thesis on these smallest of changes. But, I am sorry, I am not one of them.

That said, I did enjoy the album very much. To me, James the performer comes before Keelaghan the writer. And here he is in his usual commanding voice, with guitar work to match. And talking of instruments, he has his trusty chum Hugh McMillan accompanying him with real intelligence on bass and mandolin, and Oliver Schroer provides classy violin.

Which tracks really stood out for me? Well, I zeroed-in on his version of 'Cold Missouri Waters' as I had become rather taken with the 'Cry Cry Cry' (Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, and Dar Williams) version since originally hearing his. And indeed he has made changes in the song: changes of geography (North Montana to West Montana) and lyric (he has adopted a Shindell rephrasing of one of his lines in the last verse). But all this is for Keelaghan aficionados to talk late into the night over. It ain't for thee and me. We just settle for the fact that it is a fine sad song, a song that shows James's narrative gifts in all their glory.

The standout track however just has to be 'Fires of Calais' that comes from his first album in 1987. It tells the story of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. And by golly, doesn't he just tell it so well.

It is a big song on a big subject. There's a sort of John McCutcheon feel to it, like it is a first cousin of 'Christmas In The Trenches'. And it reminds us of not only the extraordinary courage exhibited through those dark days, but that we all should open our history books a bit more. Now be honest. Hands up all those of you who knew that immediately preceding the events on Dunkirk beach, Calais was bombed to kingdom come, and the flames could be seen from the Kent coast. I confess that I had forgotten, but thanks to James Keelaghan it is firmly in my head now. As is his fine melody: it will be a while before that goes away.

And although I do not think that he has ever approached the aforementioned Stan Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot in the quality of his songwriting, this song - and indeed the whole album - reminds us that he is still a considerable force to be reckoned with.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 69 of The Living Tradition magazine.